Doctor Who #579: Black Orchid Part 1

"Howzat!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Mar.1 1982.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor plays cricket. Nyssa has a double in 1920s high society. Adric would rather eat than dance.

REVIEW: Equal parts Phantom of the Opera, Agatha Christie and Oscar Wilde (though that fancy dress party, with all its opportunities for mistaken identity, evokes Much Ado About Nothing for me), Black Orchid contrasts hugely with The Visitation, in no small part because the stories were shot out of order. Production went like this - Four to Doomsday, The Visitation, Kinda, Castrovalva, Black Orchid - which explains why I like the companions in the season opener, but hate them in those earlier produced serials. And it's not just the haircuts either (JNT famously tried to start a hair style fad with Tegan's female Julius as best seen in the Visitation, but looks like Nyssa gave her and Adric a nicer cut in between episodes), it's the attitudes. Suddenly, Tegan doesn't want to go home right away, though Nyssa is still a rather sad-looking girl (she's internalized her tragedy). What I love about the Doc5, Tegan and Nyssa combo (sorry Adric) is the obvious camaraderie whenever they're together on DVD commentary tracks and documentary features. They're hilarious together. Black Orchid actually seems to translate that mood on the screen. A little vacation episode is just what the Doctor ordered, maybe to get Nyssa out of her shell, to make Adric more sociable (if the girls can drag him away from the buffet table), and to show Tegan's fun, flirty side.

Some consider Black Orchid the last true historical. I don't. While it's SF-free, it's still a genre piece, unconcerned with history. Some consider Black Orchid dull and slow. I don't. I think it's a charming change of pace, and while, yes, the cricket sequence goes on for a bit, it IS edited with jump cuts to make the action more rapid. Looks like the Doctor is both a good batsman AND a good bowler. And it's hilarious how the two alien kids look at each other trying to understand the game, because that's how the North American viewers feel! The show even starts with some interesting editing tricks, snippets from the lives of the Cranleigh household teased to create mystery just before the TARDIS arrives at the train station. And how nice is it to hear practical period music instead of electronics for once?

The mystery of Cranleigh Manor isn't all that hard to figure out, of course. The "unknown" with gnarled hands, living in secret apartments and killing attendants, has to be the missing botanist explorer who brought back the Black Orchid (or it wouldn't be there), and who was once engaged to Nyssa's double, Ann (which is why he dances with her while dressed in the Doctor's creepy harlequin costume). But that's not where the story lives. Rather, it's the Wildean comedy of manners that brings me joy. The play on identities is right out of The Importance of Being Earnest, and as in Wilde's plays, the members of high society take everything in their stride. These are people so afraid of being impolite or appearing foolish, they'll try to fit alien names and costumes in their world view. I should perhaps take the shine off this too-glowing review by admitting to its faults as well. The dubbed Indian (well, who could speak with that fake-looking lip thing?). Tegan knowing way too much about turn-of-the-century botanists. I can't quite bring myself to pan it more than that, though.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - I'm as surprised as you are! Its reputation as "the one with all the cricket" notwithstanding, I'm now thinking it's a great shame the serial is so slim at only two episodes. Fun and witty.

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